April 1, 2017
Horror Express - Panico en el Transiberiano
Review by P. A. Stonemann, CSS Dixieland
Horror Express, film written and directed by Gene Martin
Cristopher Lee as Professor Alexander Saxton
Peter Cushing as Medical Doctor Wells
Telly Savalas as Cossack Captain Kazan
Helga Line, Silvia Tortosa, Alberto de Mendoza, Julio Pe¤a, Angel del Pozo
Evaluation: THREE STARS
Produced in the 1970's, this is one of the best Spanish films of those years,
which is not to say much, because most of them were of very low quality, but
this one really surprises for being a good work, and deserves an analysis.
It was exhibited in Spain as 'Panico en el Transiberiano', spoken in Spanish.
The version available in the Internet Archive is in English, with subtitles
in Spanish that contain a few errors, or that contradict the dialogues. For
instance, the name of Professor Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (a real-world person,
one of the early pioneers of Astronautics) is given wrongly as 'Yockonski',
and the Mesozoic Sauropod Brontosaurus (Diplodocus) is called 'Pentosaurus'.
Also, the subtitles refer to the railway station where the travel begins as
in the Russian Territorial Concession in Peking, but two dialogues mention
Shanghai: one between Saxton and Wells, and another dialogue of those two
characters with a beautiful woman spy (yes, the film is complete, including
beautiful female spies and all that sort of thing). Here the subtitles are on
better ground, for it would make no sense to begin travel in Shanghai. It has
to begin in Peking, crossing Mongolia, and connecting at Ulan Ude, near the
Baikal Lake, with the Trans-Siberian Railway Line from Vladivostok to Moscow.
That it is indeed Peking, it is confirmed by mention in two other dialogues
of General Wang, another real-world person, who was one of the War Lords of
China in the years before the Republic of Sun Yat Sen and the rising of the
Kuo Ming Tang. There are flaws in the film, and as said, some errors in the
translation of the subtitles, but not to the point of confusing the story.
Loyal to the title of the film, the story is, unsurprisingly, one of terror.
A paleontological expedition led by Professor Alexander Saxton of the British
Royal Society (interpreted by Cristopher Lee) finds a well preserved hominid
fossil in the Province of Szechuan, Manchuria, in the year 1906 (last years
of rule of the Manchurian Dinasty in China), and takes the fossil in a big
crate on board the Trans-Siberian Railway, for transporting it to Europe.
The fossil has been frozen inside a cave for two million years. It is a Homo
Erectus (Pithecanthropus, Sinanthropus Pekinensis) from the early Pleistocene.
Then it is discovered that the fossil is not really dead. As a matter of fact,
it is a frightening monster, and as frightening monsters often have remarkable
tendency to do, it escapes from its cage and begins killing people one by one
in the train, baffling the surmises of the not-too-brilliant Inspector Miroff.
But it is no ordinary monster. This one can absorb the minds of its victims,
erase their brains, turn their eyes into a spotless white, and even transfer
itself to another body. Passengers are slow to realise their predicament, but
thanks to Professor Saxton, to Doctor Wells (interpreted by Peter Cushing),
and to a few others who prove to be a little more clever than the rest, they
finally figure out what is afoot, and begin to take some 'providences'.
They kill the Pithecanthropus and believe that the horror is all over, only
to be shocked again when it transpires that, unfortunately, the monster had
already impersonated one of the characters. The Sinanthropus had been only
another victim. To make matters unbearable, a mad Orthodox monk, Pujardoff,
is convinced that the monster is an incarnation of the Devil, and complicates
things. Religious superstition is unavoidably entwined in many weird stories.
In spite of their misguided efforts, the situation gradually becomes worser
and worser, until a unit of Cossack Soldiers commanded by the swashbuckling
and sarcastic Captain Kazan (interpreted by Telly Savalas), is by telegraph
ordered to board the train immediately and to set matters straight at once.
The plot (written by Gene Martin) is not very sophisticated, but the actors
interpret their roles with authenticity, if not really with a very credible
behaviour under such horrid circumstances. There are stereotypes and cliches,
such as the Polish Count Petrovsky and an elegant, glamorous young Countess.
There are absurdities that would hardly happen in a real situation. Saxton at
one point suggests to form groups for reciprocal protection. Experience shows
that such 'advice' is unnecessary. Humans instinctively tend to flock together
in face of peril or of the unknown, they do not need to be told to do so. Yet,
they do not do it in the film until near the end, including Saxton himself.
Also, Saxton and Wells perceive that the monster can only attack from a dark
place. Yet, when the monster cuts the electric lights off, they conveniently
take a long time for finding a hand lamp. In the early XX century electric
lights were made of carbon rods, and were still uncommon, common lights were
by gas. In spite of that, Saxton and Wells leave the Cossacks in the dark.
The Cossacks themselves prove to have bad military tactics. They do not watch
their sides and rear, and are caught from behind. No real officer would order
all his men watch only the front, and forget other possible venues of attack.
But what mainly degrades the film is a ridiculous tour de force at the end,
where the monster suddenly displays telepathic powers (before that telepathic
show, the monster always needed some proximity contact with its victims).
Spanish cinematography knew better times (in the 1940's and 1950's), but this
production stood out in the Spanish screens of the 1970's, for in spite of
its shortcomings, it is well done. It was originally distributed in English
for the international market, and in Spanish for their own domestic market.
It means that, in each language, the voices of some actors are really their
own, while other actors are dubbed by speakers of the respective language.
Cristopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Telly Savalas, Helga Line, and some others,
are heard in English with their real voices. Most are Spanish actors posing
as Cossacks, Russians, or Poles. Some actors are still well known in Spain.
The charming Spanish actress Silvia Tortosa is here at the best of her career.
The film stands out for its excellent photography. It is filmed with rich
resources and minute attention to detail: all kinds of atrezzo, furniture,
machines, vehicles, uniforms, small objects, civilian clothes, hair-dressing,
make-up, set decoration, on-location filming, all credibly portray the real
environment of China and the Romanoff Russian Empire in the early XX century.
The film is somewhat dated, the lugubrious music is typical of horror films of
the 1970's, and the end is also typical of that breed of suspense thrillers.
In the score given by this review, one star is taken out because of the plot,
which could have been more credible, and another star because of the absurd
twist of telepathy near the end, which is out of place and contradicts the
previously shown capabilities of the monster. Apart from that, it is a film
that will probably be of interest to lovers of classic mystery and horror.
Review by P. A. Stonemann, CSS Dixieland
Free for copy or distribution, under the regulations of the Internet Archive